Chaplain’s Corner: African American history must not become part of the null curriculum

Valerie Bailey

The Florida ban on the Advanced Placement (AP) African American studies course sounded familiar to me. I remember being hushed in my independent Christian school whenever I discussed racism during the 1980s. I was reminded that we should not be talking about politics, and racism was political. Yes, in the 1980s, we could talk about the Cold War and the uselessness of hiding under our desks in the event of a nuclear strike,  but not racism and discrimination. As a result, I lacked the vocabulary to talk about my experiences with racism and discrimination. The word  “microaggressions” did not exist in our vocabularies. What we experienced as condoned disrespect that manifested in jokes, slights, silence, or outright cruelty were dismissed as just hurt feelings. We could not even use the word “racism” to describe those experiences of disrespect,  because such topics were not only political, but examples of liberal politics (God forbid). The power of shutting down a conversation is its own political rhetoric. 

In the 1990s, I noticed that colleges and universities began establishing ethnic studies programs. These changes corresponded with the increase of students of color in these schools. Some of these programs came from the protests of some students of color who wanted to learn more about their respective histories. For the next several decades, ethnic studies programs became a new norm and accepted as a valid and valuable part of academic studies for all students. Ethnic studies were valued parts of academic studies. These programs, by the 2000s, were accepted more than those in the 1980s, at a time when ethnic studies were considered political, and political science was not.

In seminary during the 2000s, I learned this phrase — the null curriculum — which describes information that is not taught or allowed to be taught. As part of their research on the null curriculum, David J. Flinders, Nel Noddings, and Stephen J. Thornton cited Elliot Eisner (1985), who claimed that all schools teach three curricula: the explicit, the information advertised on course descriptions and syllabi; the implicit, the values and expectations taught outside of the formal (explicit)  curriculum, often learned by students through co-curricular or extracurricular activities; and finally, the null curriculum is what schools do not teach, either in protest against a body of knowledge or an intentional silence on material that the school does not want the student to know.

Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is trying to return African American history to the null curriculum. Since the onset of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have heard, especially from baby boomers, how their educational experiences lacked narratives about the lived experiences of the African American community in the 20th century. As a result, many people have been unaware of how systemic discrimination; lynching; and depravation of education, housing and employment have affected African Americans.

Why are the older generations unaware of these narratives? Because when they were young, African American history was part of the null curriculum. But it was hard to hide African American history, especially in the 1960s, when people watching the evening news on television began to ask, “Why are they turning fire hoses on those Black people?” 

Things began to change once the experiences of marginalized people became part of the explicit and implicit curriculum, especially in the 1990s. Adding the narratives of marginalized people has helped our society look at our own history with a more critical eye. As a result, our nation has begun to develop a deeper awareness of bias and injustice. This new awareness, often derogatorily called wokeness, is what DeSantis is trying to fight. 

What I learned from my own high school experience is this: Talking among your friends about bias is not enough. These conversations should be part of the explicit curriculum; the explicit curriculum is what changes institutions. The AP African American History class must be a part  of the explicit curriculum. My hope is that this exam is the beginning of understanding our nation and not a pivot point where our study of history is flung back into a false illusion of the past.

Rev. Valerie Bailey Fischer is Chaplain to the College and Protestant Chaplain.